John Crossan is a former monk who left his order. He has written a book about how to understand God’s violent acts in the Bible. His basic hypothesis begins by distinguishing between distributive and retributive justice.
- distributive justice involves nonviolent resistance, empowering the powerless and loving our enemies
- retributive justice involves killing our enemies or exacting judgment upon them
He then claims that the historical Jesus of the Gospels only supported distributive justice and that the apocalyptic vision of Jesus judging the world (such as found in Revelation) is the result of men subverting Jesus’ basic message and replacing it with their own sense of retributive justice.
How would you share truth with Crossan? How would you help someone who has read his book to distinguish between his hypothesis and what the Bible actually teaches?
While Crossan does notice an intriguing pattern of distributive and retributive justice - he undermines the Biblical narrative by ignoring the culpability of humanity. It is not the Biblical authors who wrongly attribute retributive justice to God, but rather it is people who fail to live out distributive justice and therefore undergo God’s retributive justice.
In addition, the Bible portrays sin as both vertical - something done against God - and horizontal - a violation against neighbor. We see King David say that his sin was first and foremost against God. Crossan does not seem to have a category for truly vertical sin - sin that is wrong because it violates what is sacred rather than because it violates the needs of another.
Psalms 51:4 - Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight; so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.
Crossan truly believes the Bible presents a bipolar view of God - at one moment extending mercy to the powerless and the next exacting judgment on His enemies. What I believe Crossan is missing is that justice for the oppressed and the poor entails the overthrow of the wicked. The two are inextricably linked. To overthrow the oppressor is to set free the poor - to destroy the wicked is to bring justice upon the earth. And when Jesus died on the cross He overthrew the oppressor of our souls - sin and satan - so that we could walk as free people in His Kingdom.
Gospel Coalition Article
Next, John Dominic Crossan fashions Jesus as a prophet who taught non-violent resistance to Roman imperialism. Crossan is perhaps most known in evangelical circles for his statement that after Jesus’ crucifixion, his body was probably thrown into a shallow grave and eaten by wild dogs. It’s easy for evangelicals like myself to write off Crossan from the start. But I am challenged by his knowledge of Scripture, which I dare say exceeds that of a good many evangelicals, even some evangelical pastors. Unfortunately, his knowledge is like the scribes of old, always searching the Scriptures, but never coming to the true Jesus revealed therein.
Here are three tests any portrait of Jesus must pass to be considered historically plausible (adapted from N. T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God , 131–133). The real Jesus must have been:
- Comprehensible. Jesus was a first-century Jew from Galilee, and so we should expect his words and deeds to fit within this historical and geographical context. His message must have been understandable and on some level plausible to first-century Jews in order to have gained a hearing among them. This is why it’s so hard to see Jesus as a pagan myth or a Cynic philosopher; these portraits simply don’t make sense in Jesus’s Jewish context.
- Crucifiable . Jesus must have also said and done things offensive enough to make the Jewish authorities want to kill him. If he only claimed to be a moral teacher, or if he only spoke out against Roman oppression, then it’s hard to see why Jews who shared those same aims and values would want him crucified. There must’ve been something apparently blasphemous about his words and deeds.
- Consequential . Jesus left such an impact on the early Christians that they were willing to suffer and die for their testimony that he’d risen from the dead. A failed prophet or revolutionary might have attracted lasting admiration at best, but what could’ve happened to make devout monotheistic Jews worship this man after his death?
Quotes from Crossan’s Book
“How to Read the Bible and Still be a Christian” by John Dominic Crossan